Understanding the Concept of Citizen

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Citizenship is a complex concept, but in general it refers to a person’s relationship with the state. In a formal sense it is a legal status which, in rich liberal democracies, brings with it the right to vote and access to welfare or health services. It is also a social bond, expressing a commitment to a society. For some, this is rooted in a shared cultural heritage or the need to protect common interests such as economic security and national identity. For others, it is about the obligation to participate in public life. For the ancient Greeks, a person’s private and public lives were inextricably connected, so that to not participate was to be “either beast or god.” This is not the same as the modern western conception which separates the two worlds. The political dimension of citizenship has a long history in the West, and for much of this time the most popular definition has been one which defines it as a legal status through which an identical set of rights is accorded to all members of the polity. This is known as the universalist or unitary model and it became progressively dominant in post-war liberal democracies.

However, the success of welfare states in promoting social cohesion and the growth of pluralist societies challenge this model’s underlying assumptions. It is now questioned whether the notion of a public sphere can really be insulated from private/social/economic life and if so, how does this impact on conceptions of citizen?

Differences between conceptions of citizenship centre around four disagreements: over the precise definition of each element (legal, political and identity); over their relative importance; over the causal and/or conceptual relations between them; and over appropriate normative standards. This entry’s first section examines the three dimensions of citizenship and sees how they are instantiated in very different ways within the two dominant models: the republican and the liberal.

The second section focuses on debates about the relation between citizenship and ideals of social integration, cohesion and equality. It concludes that if these ideals are to be sustainable then citizenship must be seen as a valuable status, associated not only with civil and political rights but also with the fulfilment of social and cultural rights.

The entry’s third section considers the challenges that globalisation poses to citizenship theory. It concludes that for citizenship to be a source of solidarity it must be linked not only with the state but also with a wider civic and social network of organisations and individuals. As a result, there has been a rise in policy initiatives aimed at encouraging participation in public life, including statutory programmes to promote citizenship education. This has been accompanied by an increase in formal processes for acquiring citizenship, often based on tests whose aims include promoting the idea of civic participation. This has generated new discussions about how to define these concepts and to what extent they are related to each other.